Epigenetics, Not Just Genes, Control Many Complex Traits

Prof. Moshe Szyf Ph.D. James McGill Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics McGill UniversityMedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Prof. Moshe Szyf Ph.D.

James McGill Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics
McGill University

Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Dr. Szyf: Humans exhibit a marked variation in traits both physical and behavioral and different susceptibilities  for developing disease. What causes this inter-individual variation? The prevailing dogma has been that changes in the sequences of genes or heritable genetic differences are responsible for these  differences. We tested here an alternative hypothesis that perhaps some of the reason for this natural variation in traits is not caused by differences in inherited genes but by “epigenetic” changes that alter the way genes work without changing the genes.  The main difference between genetic and epigenetic changes is that epigenetic changes could be introduced by experience and exposure to environment. The experiences that can cause epigenetic changes include physical as well as social environments. Although we had known that epigenetic differences occur in humans and animals we didn’t have evidence that these changes are behind the natural variation in traits that is observed in humans and animals. Ants are an exciting biological paradigm that exhibits quantitative variations in size and therefore provided a unique opportunity to test this hypothesis.

Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Dr. Szyf: The experiments highlight the fundamental role of environment driven processes in generating differences in traits. The difference between genetics and epigenetics is that we have no control over the genetic traits that we inherited from our ancestors but we do have control over the social and physical environments that we are building. Thus, it should be potentially possible to prevent deleterious traits. Focusing on prevention and identifying those environments that are driving unwanted traits become paramount in early life care and the rest of life as well.

The second lesson was that we could shift those traits by epigenetic pharmacological manipulation which again focuses on the immense potential opportunity in epigenetic treatments and approaches in altering deleterious traits that increase the risk for disease.

Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Dr. Szyf: Although ants are interesting we still need to translate this to humans by examining how we can use this concept of “inter-individual quantitative variations in epigenetics and traits”  to develop tools that will allow us better preventions, diagnostics and intervention strategies to help the most vulnerable and develop new epigenetic based approaches to treat disease.


Sebastian Alvarado, Rajendhran Rajakumar, Ehab Abouheif, Moshe Szyf. Epigenetic variation in the Egfr gene generates quantitative variation in a complex trait in ants. Nature Communications, 2015; 6: 6513 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms7513

MedicalResearch.com Interview with: Prof. Moshe Szyf Ph.D. (2015). Epigenetics, Not Just Genes, Control Many Complex Traits 

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Last Updated on March 12, 2015 by Marie Benz MD FAAD